The president of the West Virginia Education Association’s Mingo County arm said large majorities of Mingo’s public school professional and service personnel, including teachers, counselors and others, both nonunion and from his union and others, have voted for a one-day walkout.
Brandon Wolford, a Lenore K-8 special education teacher, declined Monday to reveal the date, but he said it would be soon. He said employees won’t show up to work that day, but they will instead head to the state Capitol in Charleston to protest or the Mingo County Courthouse.
Leah Clay Stone, a Logan High teacher and vice president of Logan County’s arm of the WVEA, said a large majority of professional and service employees voted by paper ballot Friday for a one-day walkout. She said central office employees, principals and vice principals weren’t asked to take part.
“The term ‘walkout’ is a misleading term, I believe,” she said. “We don’t want people to think we’re going to report to work and just get up and walk out. We’re just not going to report to work that day.”
“We’re notoriously underpaid, our benefits are just ebbing away, and we’re paying more and more for those benefits,” she said.
She noted health insurance issues affect not just school employees, but other state workers, too.
Mingo and Logan may not be the only counties participating. Wolford said Wyoming County employees have already voted to walk out, and he said at least 10 counties have votes this week.
But Tina Adams, a Baileysville Elementary and Middle teacher and president of Wyoming’s branch of the WVEA, said while a majority of employees “did vote to take action,” she didn’t know exactly what type of action would be taken. She said employees were meeting again Monday night to discuss it.
Bob Brown, an American Federation of Teachers union lobbyist, said he didn’t know how many counties have decided to participate, but he said he’s heard of five to seven counties having meetings of all school employees Monday night. He said AFT is sending staff to the meetings “to figure out what’s going on.”
“And they’re going on all week,” Brown said of the meetings. “As I understand it, most of these meetings tonight are to disseminate information and/or vote on a walkout.”
Delegate Ed Evans, D-McDowell, a retired teacher and a WVEA member, posted on Facebook Sunday that “Tomorrow, McDowell teachers will meet as many other counties have done, to decide what they will do, if a teacher strike is called.”
He said Monday that he’s sure the employees will talk about the lack of pay raises and declining health insurance benefits, “But I think ultimately they’re going to decide, you know, if they are or are not for a teacher strike.”
“I’ve talked with a lot of the teachers, and there’s a lot of discontent,” Evans said.
“I walked the picket line in 1990. I was there all 11 days of it,” he said of the last statewide teacher strike. “I didn’t want to do it. My wife and I were a young couple at the time. I couldn’t afford it. I feared the retributions that the teachers now fear, same thing, same situation, but I knew what I had to do.”
Wolford said the one-day walkout in Mingo isn’t actually a strike, but he said, “We’re hoping that this gets their attention.”
“If not, it could very well lead to something that lasts, could very well be long term,” he said.
He said representatives from the state level of the unions “kind of suggested that we hold off on it to see what happens, but our people were so fired up about it they said, ‘No we’re not waiting, we’re going to do this now,’ so we did.”
“The quicker we act,” Wolford said, “the quicker they hear us, and we do not want this legislative session to end or for no more bills to be able to be introduced without them knowing that there’s going to be hell to pay if they don’t listen to us.”
WVEA President Dale Lee said the state level of the organization was neither calling for a walkout nor trying to dissuade employees from having one, but he said it’s “making sure that [employees] have accurate information and all the facts, and then it’s the teachers and educators of the county who have to make the decisions on what they feel like is best.”
“That’s not what leadership does,” Lee said of dissuading employees from walking out. “You determine the direction you want to go, and leadership tells you the best way to get there.”
Lee noted that, in 2014, the Legislature (then controlled by Democrats) passed a law that included this language: “It is the goal of the Legislature to increase the state minimum salary for teachers with zero years of experience and an A.B. [bachelor’s] degree, including the equity supplement, to at least $43,000 by fiscal year 2019.”
Fiscal year 2019 begins July 1. The state minimum salary plus equity supplement for a teacher described by that law is currently about $33,000, according to state Department of Education data, although county boards of education may choose to add to the state figure if they have funds available.
The National Education Association, of which the WVEA is part, maintains teacher pay rankings from state to state. The NEA’s rankings show West Virginia was 48th among the 50 states and Washington, D.C., in average teacher pay in 2017.
Wolford said the biggest concern among Mingo employees is the increasing cost for Public Employees Insurance Agency health insurance coverage.
But he also said employees have expressed numerous other objections, including to getting a 1 percent statewide pay raise across the board next school year, as Republican Gov. Jim Justice has proposed, and to PEIA’s GO365 wellness initiative, through which the insured will see premium and deductible increases if they don’t earn enough points through things like meeting health goals.
Joe White, executive director of the West Virginia School Service Personnel Association, said his union isn’t advocating for a walkout or strike.
“I just don’t think it’s the right time, but that’s me, that’s me. We work with our membership,” White said.
He said Monday afternoon that he’d just heard rumors about walkout votes, and his staff is trying to figure out what’s going on.
“If this is something that the membership wants to do it’s got to be something with solidarity across the board. It can’t be sporadic,” White said.
He said he would want multiple school employee unions involved alongside other types of public workers.
“If it’s a random walkout and 10 or 12 decides to walkout and five or six stays, 10 or 12 may be terminated. It’s very possible, and that’s what scares me the most. It scares me that some people may be getting bad information,” White said.